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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Questions raised about RCMP support of officers who used taser on Dziekanski

July 17, 2008
CBC News, with files from Kurt Petrovich

Documents obtained by CBC News cast doubt on the RCMP's sincerity to get to the bottom of the Taser-related death of Robert Dziekanski, a case that ignited international debate and put the force under intense scrutiny.

From the day the Polish immigrant died at the Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 14, minutes after RCMP officers zapped him with a stun gun, RCMP e-mail exchanges obtained by access to information suggest the force moved quickly to create a strategy.

The strategy involved all answers being vetted in Ottawa, including ones described by RCMP Commissioner William Elliott as "tough or dirty questions" from the media.

But the e-mail exchanges between the RCMP in British Columbia and headquarters in Ottawa also have critics raising questions about whether the force acted appropriately behind the scenes. In one e-mail the day after the video was released, making international headlines, Elliott tells the RCMP senior officer in B.C. that he called the four officers involved in the Taser incident. He doesn't say what he told the men, but a response from Gary Bass, the RCMP deputy commissioner for the Pacific region, indicated the commissioner's calls were a "big hit" around the Richmond detachment where the officers work.

Also, after the B.C. government called a public inquiry, Bass bumped into Premier Gordon Campbell at the airport and later wrote that the premier expressed support for the officers in the chance encounter. According to Bass's e-mail, Campbell supported the continued use of Tasers and offered reassurances that the inquiry wouldn't be a negative attack on force.

Contacted on Wednesday, Campbell said his offer of support was out of compassion for the officers, not a signal that he sided with them. "I would be, you know, it would be nice to offer them personal support. It had nothing to do with whether we were getting to the bottom of the situation. That's why we were having the inquiry," Campbell said.

As for his support for Tasers, Campbell said if the inquiry recommends the weapons be abandoned, it's something his government will consider.

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and a lawyer representing Dziekanski's mother are calling the statements into question, saying they are a troubling indication that the RCMP's public vow for transparent accountability in the case are now in doubt.

Both said the premier's private comments and the RCMP commissioner's private calls to the officers under investigation were at the very least inappropriate.

'Ongoing support': RCMP commissioner

Police were called to help deal with Dziekanski after he apparently became agitated from spending 10 hours at the airport.

Dziekanski's death sparked a number of probes into the use of stun guns by police forces, including an inquiry called by the B.C. government, an internal investigation by the RCMP and an investigation by the RCMP public complaints commissioner.

The e-mails obtained by CBC suggest that a number of senior RCMP officers were worried about being crucified in the media but felt the four officers at the airport had acted properly.

The day after the release of a witness's video of the events immediately preceding Dziekanski's death, the commissioner of the RCMP called the four officers involved. Elliott sent an e-mail dated Dec. 4 to Gary Bass, the RCMP deputy commissioner for the Pacific region, assuring his "ongoing support" and discussing his phone calls to the officers. "I have just now placed calls to all four members. I spoke to three of the four," Elliott wrote in an e-mail to Bass. "I know this is tough on you and all our folks in E Division. Please be assured of my ongoing support," Elliott wrote.

Bass responded the next day, saying the commissioner's calls "were a big hit" and they were "the buzz" around the Richmond detachment where the four officers work. Parts of the e-mails were blacked out before they were given to the CBC.

Walter Kostecky, the Dziekanski family's lawyer, said Wednesday that given multiple investigations into the officers' actions, the commissioner should not have picked up the phone "if the purpose of that call was to reassure the members that as far as the commissioner was concerned, they were on safe ground."

Robert Holmes, president of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, said Elliott's personal calls to the four RCMP officers were inappropriate. "I don't know how many other people in this country who were under investigation for the use of force that they applied in whatever the circumstance might be, get a phone call from the head of the RCMP, giving them a pat on the back," Holmes said Wednesday.

The RCMP did not respond to questions from CBC News on Wednesday about the e-mails.

B.C. 'complimentary' of police force: e-mail

Another e-mail written by Bass indicates that Campbell was "complimentary" of the police force despite the fact Dziekanski's death was still under investigation. The e-mail, dated Dec. 4, was addressed to Elliott and Bill Sweeney, an RCMP deputy commissioner and special adviser to the commissioner. "I just ran into our premier at the airport and we had a great 20-minute discussion on this issue generally.… He was highly complimentary of the force, disappointed over the degree of criticism and wants to support the members involved somehow," Bass wrote. "He [Campbell] asked me to think about what he could do in this regard.… He supports the continued use of Taser and any other tools which support and protect our members. He said the inquiry will not be a negative attack on the force but a focused examination of all the issues," Bass wrote.

The B.C. Taser inquiry, headed by retired B.C. Court of Appeal justice Thomas Braidwood, was called after Dziekanski's death. This first phase of the inquiry, which ended in May, focused on Taser use, as well as deaths and injuries associated with the weapon. Numerous medical experts expressed concerns about the risks, while police officers testified Tasers save lives. The second phase of the inquiry, which will begin in October, will focus on Dziekanski's death. Crown prosecutors have not made a decision about whether charges will be laid in the incident at the Vancouver airport.

Holmes said the premier's private comments are troubling because they are at odds with his public condolences to the Dziekanski family. "In the background we have him talking with someone inside the RCMP in a fashion that would suggest it's all a masquerade," Holmes said.

Kostecky said Campbell's conversation with Bass raises questions about his objectivity as the premier. "I would have serious questions about those comments in those circumstances," Kostecky said.

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